The Myth of the Irrelevant University

Allan Rock, recteur et vice-chancelier, Université d’Ottawa

Judging by the popular press and recent public pronouncements, universities have fallen out of favour. They are increasingly accused of being “out of touch” with economic reality and unresponsive to current job market needs. The Globe and Mail ran a column last month about the declining value of a university degree. The headline said it all.  It asked: Do you want “Fries with that BA?”

On May 9, 2013, I delivered a speech at the Canadian Club of Ottawa to address the allegation that undergraduate programs in Canadian universities are irrelevant and producing legions of graduates with little hope of employment.

As a father of three recent university graduates, I know that these are challenging times for young people launching their careers. But despite a flat economy, university graduates are finding jobs related to their field of study.

  • Almost 88 percent of the 2009 graduates surveyed by the Ontario government said they were employed within six months of graduation. More than 76 per cent reported their jobs were related to their education.
  • More than 93 per cent reported they had a job two years after graduation, and 82 per cent were in positions related to their degree. These high rates, only slightly lower than the previous year’s employment rates, are encouraging given the fact that 2009 was the depth of the recession.

The harshest criticism is often levelled at humanities and liberal arts programs.

I argue that Arts students have learned skills that will never go out of style – to be analytical, to weigh competing options and to communicate effectively. These are skills that will make them valuable, adaptable employees.

In Ontario, 90 per cent of Fine & Applied Arts students are employed within six months of graduating. The numbers are about the same for other arts and humanities students. And these graduates are not offering fries with anything. Follow-up studies on University of Ottawa grads found that 81 per cent said their full-time jobs were related to their degrees.

Despite the clear and compelling evidence of value, the drumbeat of criticism for undergraduate university programs continues. The caricature involves out-of-touch professors delivering dry lectures in stuffy classrooms on obscure topics from an out-dated curriculum, producing hapless graduates with few job prospects and little insight into contemporary needs.

Whoever drew that cartoon has not stepped foot on a Canadian campus recently. The portrayal is plain wrong, and fails to take into account the dramatic changes in our universities’ curricula and teaching methods.

We increasingly use technology to deliver lectures or make learning more interactive. Our students work together to solve problems, in preparation for the reality of the modern workplace.

There is also growing emphasis across the country, including on our campus and in the Arts, on experiential learning: that is, learning through a variety of experiences, including co-op placements, volunteer work related to courses, internships, mentoring, study abroad programs and undergraduate research programs. In short, today’s students are learning not just in the classroom and in our labs and libraries, but also in the workplace and in the community.

Can we do better? Yes. We want to work more closely with business and industry to provide even more co-op placements for our undergraduates, more internships for our graduate students, and more mentors for our budding entrepreneurs.

We want to build more mutually beneficial relationships. Canadian universities already conduct close to $1 billion a year in contract research for the private sector. Our scientists and scholars are ready to work with companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, on research that will lead to innovations and that will give our graduate students the kind of exposure and experience that will help them move forward in their careers.

Some of our graduates are indeed entering the workplace after graduation, and earning more over their lifetime because of their degrees. And of course their job prospects are prominent considerations as we plan programs and courses. But let’s remember too that preparing our students for the job market is only one of our roles.

A university education offers rewards that can’t be monetized: it produces citizens able to play a greater part in our democracy; individuals with a discipline of mind, an openness of spirit, and most of all, the ability to learn in a world that is constantly changing. That too is an important outcome. It may not show up on a tax return, but it adds value to our nation and to our democracy.